Inside the Turmoil at TCM After Executive Exodus: ‘They’re Farming Most People Out’ | Exclusive

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A restructuring leaves the Warner cable channel “dispersed over this massive mega-corporate bureaucratic mess,” an insider tells TheWrap

TCM Warner Bros. Discovery layoffs
Under Warner Bros. Discovery, TCM is being dismantled, insiders tell TheWrap. (Christopher Smith/TheWrap)

“All is well,” a headline read in January as hosts of the Turner Classic Movies channel assuaged fans’ fears following upheaval under CEO David Zaslav’s watch at Warner Bros. Discovery. Six months later, TCM’s top executives — including 25-year veteran Pola Changnon — are out and the cable channel’s future (and, for many, the future of classic film) seems entirely uncertain.

This week’s changes will see the number of employees at TCM slashed from about 90 to about 20, according to insiders, with the responsibilities of overseeing the network distributed among other units under the WBD umbrella. Meanwhile, budgets have already been progressively cut at the network, leading many to wonder what the future will bring.

“They’re farming most people out into different departments,” an insider with knowledge of the TCM restructuring told TheWrap. “Michael Ouweleen is now the head of TCM, but he really doesn’t oversee any part of TCM other than the podcasts and the duty of production.”

“It’s just a nominal title so that they can say there’s a person overseeing TCM as a unit, but in fact it’s just dispersed over this massive mega-corporate bureaucratic mess,” the insider added. (Update: Later on Friday, after the publication of this report, Warner Bros. Discovery announced that Warner Bros. Pictures heads Michael De Luca and Pam Abdy will be overseeing TCM. Ouweleen’s role is unclear.)

A Warner Bros. executive familiar with decision-making refuted that the network was gutted, saying that the number of employees is closer to where it was pre-merger — around 90 — with some dedicated solely to the network while others split their time between TCM and other WBD channels.

Steven Spielberg (left), Paul Thomas Anderson, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav and TCM host Ben Mankiewicz onstage during the opening night during the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival / Getty Images

TCM is a tiny part of the multibillion-dollar Warner Bros. Discovery conglomerate, generating approximately $266 million in net operating revenue in 2022, according to S&P Global Intelligence. But it’s a highly visible and much beloved symbol of film history, one that prominent Hollywood figures and movie fans have publicly embraced in the wake of the layoffs. After TheWrap broke the story of executive layoffs Tuesday, Ryan Reynolds advocated for the network on Twitter Wednesday, calling TCM “a holy corner of film history — and a living, breathing library for an entire art form.” To which, actress Valerie Bertinelli rejoined: “Another channel decimated! And for what? Wall [Street]? Shareholders?!”

Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson had a call with Zaslav on Wednesday to express their support for the network.

But TheWrap spoke with four current and former TCM employees who said morale is low at the network. “No one left is thrilled,” one TCM insider said.

“I think the layoffs were their pretext for wanting to restructure things because they don’t believe in the approach that we take to programming,” a now-former TCM employee told TheWrap. “They’re used to making a cheap show, playing it 1,000 times and monetizing it with commercials. They have a formula for how to create shows that doesn’t apply to TCM and they’ve never really thought through what the implications of those differences are.”

“The direction had been ‘TCM generates less revenue than the Food Network so you should spend more time on that.’ That literally happened to someone in the talent department who was hired for TCM but then repurposed,” the insider added. “But now a lot of those people are just being let go, I guess.”

The insider said that the restructuring came after months of progressively trimming the TCM budget. Two individuals at TCM told TheWrap that Warner Bros. Discovery tried to cut the famous outros on the network — in which hosts would further discuss the historical significance of the film viewers just watched — as a cost-saving measure, assuming viewers wouldn’t feel the loss of the programming (this was also reported by Vulture’s Joe Adalian). The hosts intervened and the outros remained.

The budget for the TCM Film Festival, where Zaslav introduced “Rio Bravo” and stood alongside Steven Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson in April, was also reduced this year.

S&P Global Market Intelligence forecasts that TCM’s revenue will drop slightly to $252.7 million in 2023. The vast majority of that comes from affiliate revenue, or fees paid by cable providers to carry the network. That source of revenue is steadily declining as customers continue to drop their cable subscriptions in favor of cheaper streaming options.

A Warner Bros. Discovery spokesperson declined to confirm the estimates or disclose exact TCM revenue figures.

The old guard is out

Fears over changes at TCM intensified on Tuesday after Changnon announced her decision to leave the company after 25 years. Changnon had been leading the channel’s operations since 2020.

That same day, TheWrap exclusively reported that the channel’s top leadership had been laid off amid cuts of 100 staffers across Warner Bros. Discovery’s U.S. Networks Group, led by chairman and chief content officer Kathleen Finch. These included TCM’s senior vice president of programming and content strategy Charles Tabesh, vice president of studio production Anne Wilson, vice president of marketing and creative Dexter Fedor and TCM Enterprises vice president Genevieve McGillicuddy.

Finch announced in a memo to staff that Ouweleen, who had previously run TCM on an interim basis for eight months in 2019 and 2020, would take oversight of the channel while also remaining president of Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, Discovery Family and Boomerang.

Staffers within TCM’s public relations department were among the casualties in a round of layoffs Thursday, including TCM’s editorial manager.

What happens next

Changes in TCM programming likely won’t be seen for some time. A TCM insider told TheWrap that the network is already scheduled through September but speculated that there could be fewer co-hosted nights, fewer specialty films and fewer films licensed for specific events in the near future in order to cut costs. Viewers already noticed that hosts are now sharing sets, yet another effort to make TCM more “efficient.”

Ben Mankiewicz, Jacqueline Stewart and the other TCM hosts will continue in their host roles, according to a WBD spokesperson. TCM will continue to pay for access to classic films from all studios and there is no plan to restrict the channel to showing only Warner Bros. movies.

The network could look more like the TCM hub on Max, which a TCM insider told TheWrap wasn’t curated or run by anyone connected to TCM.

“They dumped a bunch of movies [on Max] and there was no thought to how it was programmed or curated,” the individual said.

The Warner executive said that the Max team is responsible for curating content for the streaming service for all hubs, including TCM, adding that the network has “consistently ranked among the top five brand hubs” since Max launched in May.

One thing lost in the layoffs of the network’s longtime veterans is the institutional knowledge of where and how to find the classic films that are licensed and programmed on the network. That will be challenging to replicate, the TCM insider said.

The WBD executive emphasized to TheWrap that there’s “no desire” to do “anything disruptive to the TCM experience.” As for the film festival’s future, they added no decision has been made about changing its current format or budget.

“There’s no change to the mission,” the individual said. “We are looking to show classic movies and preserve the importance of those stories. The hosts will continue, the variety and vastness of the types of movies TCM airs will continue. So there will be no change that will in any way diminish the mission or the things people love about TCM.”

“It’s the history of our country,” Zaslav himself said of the importance of film preservation at the TCM Film Festival this past April. “Movies taught people the stories of America, the stories of the world and in many ways how to be an American, so in many ways we have a great obligation.”

Hollywood speaks out

The news of the executive exits sent shockwaves among fans of the TCM brand, both in the industry and the general public.

“This is an incredible loss of institutional knowledge. The people who built and loved TCM — who believed in its mission, who were passionate about carrying the torch for our cultural history and cinema,” TV reporter Maureen Lee Lenker tweeted Tuesday. “[Zaslav] likes playing studio boss and surrounding himself with the symbols of those who came before him who had more knowledge and intellect about art and movie-making in their little finger than he does in his entire being.

In her thread, where she confessed to feeling “hoodwinked” for past reporting on a cautiously optimistic outlook of TCM’s future under Zaslav, Lenker begged celebrities like Reynolds, Spielberg, Bill Hader and others to tell the CEO that “this is a HUGE mistake and catastrophic to the history of our industry.”

After their meeting with Zaslav, directors Spielberg, Scorsese and Anderson issued a statement suggesting they were reassured.

“We understand the pressures and realities of a corporation as large as WBD, of which TCM is one moving part,” the filmmakers said in a joint statement released Wednesday evening. “We have each spent time talking to David, separately and together, and it’s clear that TCM and classic cinema are very important to him. Our primary aim is to ensure that TCM’s programming is untouched and protected.”

But Zaslav’s self-proclaimed love for classic movies and the channel became a running joke among the staff.

“I don’t care if he likes it or not. If he’s going to destroy it, who the f–k cares if he likes it?” said one insider.

Kristen Lopez and Sharon Waxman contributed to this story. Disclosure: Lopez previously contributed to TCM’s editorial content.